The Strangest Landlord-Tenant Relationship In Town?

Stacked up in cubicles for decades, immigrants living in a Bowery tenement may have a very unusual situation.

Jiang's voice is almost drowned out by the sound of a chain saw coming from the other end of the hallway. A group of young men are busy at work, sawing planks of wood and carrying them across the floor. The residents have only been back about a week, and they are already modifying their cubicles. Some have added hardwood floors. Two teenage girls, who are visiting their father, stand by watching. The noise from the chain saw sputters across the entire floor. No one seems to mind.

One man carrying a wooden board paces across the hallway in a state of agitation. He says his name is Ling, and he's a driver. "Our lawyer tells us that we can't have ceilings in these cubicles," he says. "That's not right. Every human deserves to have a ceiling." He shakes his fist at the place where the partitions had been. "How could we be living in America—like this, living in a niu long (cow cage)?"

Ling leans on the board and smokes a cigarette restlessly. The wood is going to be a bunk that he's adding to his cubicle. He and others are also fabricating ceilings for their rooms. If it blocks the fire sprinklers, it doesn't matter to him at all. He will do whatever it takes.

The tiny rooms of 81 Bowery have no ceilings, for now.
Jackie Snow
The tiny rooms of 81 Bowery have no ceilings, for now.
Only about a dozen residents have returned to 81 Bowery's cubicles since an evacuation last year.
Jackie Snow
Only about a dozen residents have returned to 81 Bowery's cubicles since an evacuation last year.

Ling's 80-year-old father is reheating some fried fish, vegetables, and rice outside his cubicle when the Voice comes by to take some photographs, and he offers up a helping of his dinner.

He apologizes for the state of his cubicle. The ceiling that his son had constructed for it had caved in on a top bunk. (There are two now, but there were four bunks before the evacuation.) The cave-in had created something of a mess.

"Look. How to live like this?" he says, and repeats his question. "I told someone to lower the TV sound last night. They got angry with me. Ah, argument."

As he begins eating his fried fish, an elderly woman arrives. He introduces her as his wife. She is 74 and still living in the dormitory in the Bronx. "All by myself," she says. "It's too far from here." She has brought her husband fruit and bottled water. With a smile, she offers to share. And she tries again, several times.

Lee says his headaches with the tenants will never end. "Just today, they sent me another violation order. The fire escape is being blocked by tenant belongings. They just move back in, and this happens already," he says. But he's given up on lawsuits. "These people will never leave," he says. "I will never get them out." After paying thousands in legal fees and a $10,000 fine, he says he's done with legal wrangling.

Lee says he knows that living without the partitions and ceilings is difficult on his tenants, and he's trying to think of an alternative. He had considered adding more chicken wire or other kinds of mesh. "But the tenants complain they are living in a birdcage," he says. He also didn't think there was anything wrong with the video cameras. "I need to know what's going on," he says, and shrugs.

While Lee deals with problems on the fourth floor, the city has shut down his hotel on the second and third floors because there are missing fire exits. Lee says he's trying to comply with the city to get it open again. The video business a block north, he complains, just hasn't been the same since 9/11. "And now you can watch free Chinese shows on the Internet," he gripes.

If that weren't bad enough, commercial real estate in the city is in the toilet. Lee's investment is only giving him agita.

"These tenants, they may look poor, but they are not poor. They have money—they do their own renovations on the building," he says. "They break all the rules. I tell them not to cook, and they cook. They can't just build up to the ceiling. That blocks the sprinklers. They pay rent, and then they collect more rent!"

Despite the hassle, Lee just can't give up on 81 Bowery. "My roots are here, and Chinese people like to stay close to their roots," he says. "I will stay to do business here. I know how it works here." He was worried, though, because business in Chinatown is getting increasingly competitive. "Buildings," he declares, looking at the room full of DVDs and tapes. He makes a dismissive wave with his hand. "The only good investment is buildings!"

Additional reporting and translation by Fatimah Surjani Ortega
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